Practical Lean

Adding a dose of pragmatism to lean concepts can help organizations get better incrementally.


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Although many “lean purists” may disagree with me, I believe that to be successful in the introduction and implementation of lean concepts, a dose of practicality is required. I like to refer to this as “practical lean.” Obviously, the ongoing elimination of waste is the overriding objective of the lean concept, but there are a number of ways to achieve this. I prefer to see a lot of little successes along the way and believe in the adage, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of better.” Here, I would like to share some of my experiences helping companies get lean in a practical way.

The Plant Expansion 

A very successful manufacturer of materials used in electronic devices was outgrowing its existing facility. The company was constantly adding new equipment to support its rapid sales growth, and this, combined with frequent process changes, created the need for more space. Located in a small industrial park, it had been increasing square footage incrementally by acquiring adjacent properties as they became available. At one point, the company had the opportunity to acquire a much larger space nearby. The challenge was how best to use this new space. The optimal approach from a lean standpoint was to reconfigure the entire production operation, streamlining flow as much as possible. However, there were concerns about such an approach, including:

  • The business was relatively young and much of the product technology was still evolving (existing designs were often pushing the envelope of what was possible).
  • Much of the production equipment was large, and electrical power requirements were very high, requiring complex configurations of 
  • power-generation equipment.
  • Although projections for continued growth were optimistic, they were just that: projections. There were budgetary limitations established for the plant reconfiguration.

With these concerns in mind, a practical-lean approach was chosen, and the “back-end” production processes requiring about 50 percent of the equipment were set up in the new space. As much as possible was done to make these processes lean, and even though the overall production flow was not perfect, the company was satisfied with the results given its upfront concerns.

The Plant Cleanup and Organization Effort 

A manufacturer of coated fabrics for automotive, clothing and bedding applications used a production process that generated a great deal of dust. As a relatively high-volume manufacturer, it was a challenge to keep the facility clean and organized. Over the years, various types of environmental-control equipment had been installed (at considerable cost), but dust was still prevalent. In a perfect operation, better production equipment, more dust-containment devices and a rigid cleaning protocol might have mitigated the problem, but there was a need to produce 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and just keeping the equipment running required a considerable amount of labor. The practical-lean approach was to select one production line and make every effort to keep it clean and organized. This required training the line operators on 5S techniques and installation of localized dust-collection equipment. A concerted effort was undertaken to keep unneeded items, such as material, and infrequently used equipment out of the area, and visual controls were put in place to help keep things where they belonged. Although the plant itself still has dust issues, there has been definite improvement on the one line, and this has generated interest from a number of potential new customers.

The Increased Line Output

A manufacturer of glass products was faced with the need to increase output due to an increase in customer demand for one particular product. Also faced with space constraints, the entire line was moved to a nearby building and set up as it always had been. As a result, the output was no better than it had been in the original building. Although a “perfect” line would have every machine on it running at optimum efficiency, the practical-lean approach focused simply on whether the line was meeting takt time, defined as the rate of customer demand (calculated by dividing available work time by the demand for the product). On this line, it was obvious where the takt time constraint was: the step in which inventory was building up. Until such time as this constraint (bottleneck) was eliminated, nothing else on the line mattered (as the late business-management guru Eli Goldratt once said, “An hour saved at a non-bottleneck is a mirage”). Actions were taken to improve output at this bottleneck, and almost overnight, the line’s output increased and customer demand for this product was being met. If demand on the line increases in the future, the same approach will be used to increase output.

Adding a dose of practicality to lean implementations can increase the rate of employee and management acceptance, and help organizations get better, faster.